Back-To-School Sensory Strategies

Back-To-School Sensory Strategies

Back-To-School Sensory Strategies

The transition into a new school year can bring excitement about meeting new friends, setting goals, and trying new activities. This time of year also brings changes to routines, adjustments to sleep habits, and new expectations for behavior. For children with sensory differences these disruptions to routines can be particularly challenging. Consider evaluating your child’s new routines to find proactive approaches to support them. Some suggestions are outlined below.

Classroom sensory breaks and strategies

  • Chair pushups (place hands on the sides of a chair and lift bottom to hover over it)
  • Sharpen pencils with a manual sharpener (bonus movement break to throw away shavings)
  • Help teacher to erase the chalk board or dry erase board
  • Carry a heavy book between classes or during transition either in their arms on in a backpack (help determine which works best for your child)
  • Hold open a heavy door for the classroom to walk through
  • String a few beads onto a child’s shoes so that they can fidget with the beads as needed without distracting others or potentially dropping the fidget
  • Drink from a sports bottle or reusable straw for calming input to the mouth
  • Provide headphones to eliminate background noise for focused activities
  • Pack crunchy snacks (crackers, carrots, popcorn) for break time to “wake up” their mouth and provide alerting input
  • Pack chewy snacks (fruit leather, dates, meat) to provide calming input to the mouth
  • Use graph paper to help your child visually organize for math or spelling tasks

Changes to sleep routines

  • Follow guidelines from the National Sleep Association to ensure your entire family is getting enough sleep per night (Mindell, 2019)
    • 11 to 12 hours per night for school age children
    • 8.5 to 9.25 hours per night for teenagers
    • 7 to 9 hours per night for an adult
  • Slowly adjust sleep schedules (by about 10 minutes per night) to accommodate new bedtimes
  • Follow a consistent bedtime routine so that the child knows what to expect and how to properly calm himself down
  • Help your child recognize and label the signs that they are tired. For example, if your child is rubbing her eyes you may say, “I notice you are rubbing your eyes, you look tired. Let’s get ready for bed.” By naming the behavior you observe you help your child to be able to identify their needs and may prevent challenging behaviors
  • Provide activities and objects that promote calm behavior for the hour prior to bedtime such as reading books, taking a warm bath, or listening to soft music during more sedentary play activities
  • Eliminate the use of any screened devices (TV, computer, tablet, phone, etc) to at least 2 hours prior to bedtime (Yeager, 2017)

Support with transitions

  • Use a timer to give a warning prior to transitions. A timer with a visual component can help children understand the concept of time, this will prep them for cues that may be provided in a classroom such as a 3-minute warning
  • Use a visual schedule to outline the daily plan so the child knows what to expect
  • Consider sensory supports (examples listed above) that may help with transitions such as carrying books between classes or holding open the door for the classroom
  • Find out the strategies used in the classroom (many teachers will use songs, cues, or sounds to signal an event is happening or a transition is occurring) and incorporate these strategies into your home activities so that your child can practice responding appropriately

If you notice your child is having a particularly difficult time adjusting to changes or handling new sensory stimuli consider talking to our occupational therapist about strategies that may support their individual needs. Change is difficult for most people, remember to stay calm and work with your child to find strategies and supports that promote success.

Back-To-School Sensory Strategies
Ali Harrigan, MOT, OTR/L

References: Mindell, J. (2019). How Can My Child Get More Sleep? & Yeager, A. (2017). Evening Screen Time Can Sabotage Sleep

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